Alanis became famous by writing a fantastic song involving doing a non-reproductive sexual act in a theatre. But that was once upon a time ago, and the now-married Morissette’s latest song, “Guardian,” is about motherhood. You oughta know that it’s somewhat less fantastic.
Despite being well-versed in the emotional intensity of parenthood, I still found lyrics about being a “warrior of care” and “angel on call” hopelessly schmaltzy. Which is pretty much how many, if not most, non-parents view us breeders already.
Alanis—who also claims this clumsy couplet: “I wake up and first things first, I’m of service/ I make sure your needs are met, I’m so selfless”—is not the first parent to find her lyrical prowess fall victim to baby brain. Paul Simon is one of the greatest songwriters of all time, and yet his 2002 song “Father and Daughter” actually contains such treacle as “There could never be a father who loved his daughter more than I love you.” Not exactly “The Boxer,” is it?
Usher may be best known for the club classic “Yeah”—a title that also makes up the bulk of the lyrics—but even that is “Sound of Silence” compared to “Prayer For You,” in which he sings to his infant son: “I’ll do my best to be there for you every day/ To be what my father wished he was to me.”
Yeah, it’s nice and whatever, but the road to bad songwriting is paved with good intentions. Thing is, it’s possible to write a good song about parenthood, despite it being a personal experience that’s essentially inexplicable to those who have not experienced it. Which, of course, has never stopped anyone from trying.
Earlier this year, the birth of Blue Ivy Carter found Jay-Z admitting “words can’t describe what I’m feeling for real” while risking diabetes with rhymes like “the most beautifulest thing in this world/ Is daddy’s little girl” on the downloadable song “Glory.” That said, he tempers the sentimentality of this whipped-off ode to his two-day-old daughter with a revelation of Beyonce’s miscarriage and a “featuring B.I.C.” songwriting credit. Plus, even an exhausted Hov can drop zingers like “You don’t yet know what swag is/ But you was made in Paris” and “You’re the child of my destiny/ You’re my child with the child from Destiny’s Child/ That’s a hell of recipe.”
Jay actually made a stronger song about fatherhood last year with his and Kanye’s then-theoretical “New Day,” in which the MCs delivered the most moving cut off Watch the Throne by rapping to their unborn sons over a RZA-fied rework of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good.”
A good chunk of Eminem’s oeuvre is inspired by his daughter Hailie, from his baby-mama murder fantasy “97’ Bonnie and Clyde” (itself a parody of Will Smith’s oh-so-corny “Just the Two of Us” tune about Jaden) to the hilariously dirty “My Dad’s Gone Crazy” (which features his daughter and her amazing faux-southern accent on the titular hook) to the heart-on-sleeve “Mockingbird,” on which Em breaks down in granular details the challenges of raising a child in a broken home.
Further evidence of child-inspired songs transcending their intrinsic cheesiness comes courtesy of “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)” and “Isn’t She Lovely,” though admittedly it helps to be written by the respective likes of John Lennon and Stevie Wonder. Or Lauryn Hill, whose Miseducation-era ode to her son, “To Zion,” takes on appropriately biblical proportions while explaining her decision to keep her unplanned pregnancy.
Even someone else’s kids can provide the impetus for a classic tune. John Lennon’s neglected son Julian was the basis for Paul McCartney’s “Hey Jude,” while James Taylor’s nephew was the “Sweet Baby James” in question.
Hell, you don’t even have to be a good parent to write a good song about parenthood—absentee dad Loudon Wainwright III has a bunch about Rufus and Martha, including the hilarious “Dilated to Meet You” with then-pregnant, then-wife Kate McGarrigle: “There is one thing you should know well, of this there is no doubt/ You cannot get inside again, once you have come out/ Even though there’s trouble, even though there’s fuss/ We really think you’ll like it here, we hope that you like us.”
Wainwright’s Martha tribute “Daughter,” which found fame in the film Knocked Up, is equally not-too-sweet: “That’s my daughter in the water/ Every time she fell I caught her/ Every time she fell/ That’s my daughter in the water/ I lost every time I fought her/ Yeah, I lost every time.”
Parenthood is a huge part of people’s lives, and one can’t help but want to translate that overwhelming experience into a song—even Radiohead has made a pass at it. But all of us moms and dads are judged by your songwriting sentimentalism, so please aim more for “Rufus is a Tit Man” than “Butterfly Kisses.”